(The following is a review of Jan Hansen's recently published collections of poetry. NOTE: You can read his newest collection in this issue, Tears of Clarity.) Visit Adam's personal Website for more reviews and collections of Powell's own work
Jan Oskar Hansen, a Norwegian expatriate, has published a wealth of poems, including individual works published in various anthologies, on the internet, and three collections which have been recently published in book form: Letters from Portugal (BeWrite Books, UK 2003), Lunch in Denmark (Lightningsource, UK 2005) and La Strada (Lapwing, Belfast 2006). Both Letters from Portugal and Lunch in Denmark are available at amazon.com.
Hansen takes pride in telling the world that he is a former merchant seaman who has forsaken his native Norway and the Norwegian language for Portugal, and the English language. Hansen is – in actuality – a global poet, and can (in my opinion) easily shed all claims to (and responsibility for) Norwegian nationalism and nationality. In Letters from Portugal Hansen writes: “The reason I left Stavanger (Norway) was a sense of being treated as a failure, and if I had stayed, I would have become one.” This seemingly ironic statement is typical of Hansen’s humorous wit and sarcasm, and is – in reality – much more than a mere personal footnote regarding his inability to find acceptance among the literati in present-day Norway. It is in essence a biting commentary about a Scandinavian social code called “Janteloven” (the law of Jante, by the Danish writer Aksel Sandemose (1899-1965)), which presses down upon the necks and aspirations of all who would dare to attempt to exceed the boundaries of humility; and who would profess to be somebody, who would believe that they are as worthy, wiser, more, or better than anyone else, and who believe that they can teach anyone else anything, or that anyone cares about them!
Fortunately, Hansen freed himself from the shackles of this code and has allowed himself to wander beyond presuming even non-presumption (indicated by Hansen himself in an interview where he says: “I used to call myself a working-class poet, only I got tired of it since it isn’t true anymore”.). And ironically, Hansen still embraces the tongue-in-cheek humour of his native culture, now set out to sea – floating freely across the tides and in the winds of today’s global reality – perhaps where it functions best.
Jan Oskar Hansen is, in my opinion, a master in the art of story-telling through poetry. His book Letters from Portugal clearly demonstrates his ability to weave an interesting tale out of the most ordinary occurrences or situations; all the while employing a poetic craftsmanship equalled only by the best classical poets. He is particularly adept with poetic economy and finding perfect endings to his verse. (In La Strada I almost suspect that the endings of many of his poems are written long before (if not separately from) some of the mid-sections.) Of the many jewels in Letters from Portugal I am particularly fond of the following:
A light breeze kisses a mountain lake;
a ripple of delight. So deep felt is
the caress that the lake undulates long
after the breeze has gone.
We found a painting of Jesus
at the dump.
Wanted to put him in
a gilded frame, but we didn’t
have any money. Nailed him to
the wall instead, and since the artist
had made him cross-eyed, Jesus
could see us wherever we sat.
The Old Lady
So delicate and thin her fingers;
her wedding ring slips off.
What sweet a smile she has, her
hair moonlight on rime frost,
her eyes milky blue,
seeing only the distant past.
Translucent she is, and soon
she will be the wind
and a memory.
Hansen is equipped with a colourful palette of imagery and an artist’s sense of descriptive presentation, as well as a sense of urgency – adeptly transcending the boundaries of both historical anecdotes and current events, politics and social ethics, emotionality and matter-of-factness. Letters from Portugal is a treasure-trove of perfect verse, which could easily function as adult bedtime stories, designed to launch incumbent dreams by bridging the ordinary with the extraordinary.
In La Strada Hansen gravitates further away from poetic form into short short prose. It is here that the “bad boy” really yearns to come out in Hansen – often abandoning both the need for both “poetic” alliteration and form. An old-fashioned critic might challenge whether or not many of these works are – in fact – poems. I find many of them to be quite beautiful in their prosaic presentation, and clearly see the influence of writers such as Hemingway, Bukowski and perhaps a hint of Steinbeck here and there. These poems are – in my opinion – easily adapted to recital in a theatrical setting, and some of the endings could even function as poems unto themselves:
From End of Dreams
When I kissed the trout, as a gesture of
peace, it bit my lips. I wrung its neck
and gave its limp little body to the cat.
Love Story (the beginning)
... ‘Why those tears, my dear?’ I compassionately asked.
‘I have thrown my harmonica in the bin. I will never be a female
Lou Adler.’ I sat down beside her and cried too, took out my pen
and threw it away; ‘I have tried to write as Ernest Hemingway
for thirty five years and it has brought me nothing but heartache.’
Yet, as the city lights were turned on and the hum of traffic
ceased, we, two sad losers, sat there holding hands.
My favourite poem from La Strada is
In the heat of summer I stand by the window
watch the tall, slim widow cross the street
on her way to mass. Dressed all in black,
she carries her grief heavy as a nun’s habit.
At the corner she stops, looks up. It’s as if she
feels my desire is an ill omen. She shudders.
I move into the deeper shadows of my dingy
flat and commit a cardinal sin.
Although La Strada includes many beautiful “poems”, I personally feel that Hansen’s work suffers from a bit of overwriting in this collection; as there is so much perfection in many of the beginning and last stanzas that the mid-sections are sometimes superfluous and distracting. Out of curiosity, I searched for some of his most recent works on the internet and happily found that he has now managed to combine his earlier poetic economy and succinctness with the looser style he began to explore in La Strada. However, I would emphasize that there is much of merit in La Strada, and it provides a solid foundation for an important literary transition for an important contemporary poet and short story-teller.
I look forward to reading more of Jan Oskar Hansen’s work in the future, and thoroughly recommend his style to all who possess (or strive for) a sense of literary rebelliousness and quality, as well as those who think that they do “not like poetry” but prefer short stories and/or novels – for they will truly delight in finding an author who satisfies their hunger without demanding that they read a 500-page novel (after all - who other than another author affords himself/herself that kind of luxury in this fast-paced age of immediacy?).
- Literary criticism (2006) by Adam Donaldson Powell (based upon Letters from Portugal, ISBN 1-904492-20-7 and La Strada, ISBN 1-905425-38-4).